“Chronological Snobbery”

November 1, 2021

In my previous post, I listed online Bible study sites that are for the most part free. But the reason they are free is that most of these books are in public domain. Since they are no longer under copyright protection, they are free to copy. That can be a plus to students of the Bible especially if you have a limited personal library or no personal library.

Old books can be valuable. C.S. Lewis warned people against “chronological snobbery” in his book, *Surprised by Joy*. It is the fallacy of thinking that new books are always better. Owen Barfield was the one who argued with Lewis on this point changing Lewis’ mind. Lewis writes:

In the first place he made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery’, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realisation that our own age is also ‘a period’, and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions.

I read those words early in my life, so I have read both old books and new books. I have profited from Lewis’ wise advice.

However, when using public domain books for Bible study, there is a caution. It is possible for something old to be discredited as Lewis noted. In Biblical studies, the areas where old books may be discredited arise from archaeology, increased knowledge of the Biblical languages, or increased knowledge about manuscripts of the Bible. For example, Smith’s Bible Dictionary is in public domain on a number of sites. This dictionary says that Dagon was a fish god. But from archaeology, the Philistine god is now known to have been a god of grain. Older scholars had made an incorrect assumption about the identity of Dagon from the etymology of the Hebrew word *dag* (fish).

We have a wealth of books at our finger tips on the Internet. Public domain books may be used with profit, but also note the warning that some information may be out of date.

— Russ Holden